INTERVIEW: Ben Salter

Ben Salter Promo 7 by Barry Douglas_preview

If there’s one thing that Ben Salter (The Gin Club, The Wilson Pickers) always appears to do, it’s to back himself. This time he’s even gone so far as to name his new solo album Back Yourself, and in the spirit of impromptu creativity and capturing songs on the fly he took a new and challenging approach to the writing and recording of the album.

“It was very different. I initially conceived it as being entirely improvised in the studio, says Salter. “I anticipated I’d do it fairly cheaply in friends’ studios, write the songs, record quickly and keep it playful – but if you don’t have any ideas when you get to the studio it can go downhill fairly quickly!” he laughs.

“We did a couple of weeks like that in Tasmania but came away with far less material than I’d hoped and it didn’t quite work as I’d thought. I had someone offer me help to finish it and they put me onto producer Chris Townend in Melbourne. I told him my plan and what I’d done and he was down with doing some more of the improv thing but I was kind of lamenting the fact that I hadn’t written the songs and that I’d gone about it this way. I think it ended up being good in the end though, I think it works,” reflects Salter.

Attention to detail and willingness to experiment with the songs to find their most interesting form made for an equally thrilling and frustrating process, but one that ultimately yielded the most rewarding results. ”There’d be days when we’d sit there, take songs apart and replace every single part – different bass lines, instrumentation etc. It ended up being a mix of what I’d anticipated and some studio re-working. It was quite challenging at times to go into the studio and just have nothing and be plagued by the normal doubts with the added indignity of not having any actual songs! Now in hindsight I can see that the impulses and instincts that drive the creation are still intact,” says Salter.

“I don’t really write for anything in particular,” admits Salter, when asked about his writing process and how it differs as he shifts between musical projects. “A lot of the sound is very much down to the personnel and the vibe. I’ve just finished recording an album with Conor Macdonald from The Gin Club here in Tasmania and Adrian Styles from the band played on it too. When we get together it just automatically has a very Gin Club sound. Some songs just don’t fit with other bands or I want to keep some for my own albums, Salter explains. “Writing these in the studio meant I didn’t even get the chance to make that decision as I needed all the songs I could get!”

Having a hand in a number of project means Salter operates as a full-time musician, yet it is only in the last year or two that he’s started earning what anyone would consider a reasonable amount of money as a recording and touring artist.

“Before that it was constant poverty,” Salter grimly recalls. “It’s certainly not getting easier. I treat it as my own thing – I book my own shows and I’m lucky I have a label who give me money and support. I don’t like it when musicians complain about it being hard. I just think, get another job if you don’t like it. There are plenty of other people who would love the opportunity they have,” says Salter.

“I don’t see things like Spotify being run in a very fair way. It’s hard with intellectual copyright as a musician,” states Salter, before switching his attention to the positive side of being a working musician. “Playing live, it’s never been better. If you’re willing to work and play all the time and you’re halfway decent, you can do it all the time. With the internet and email I can organise a NZ tour and a tour of Japan. It’s not rocket science. I’ve never been able to afford hotels all the time and you get a bit worn out but I wouldn’t swap it for anything to be honest.”

CHRIS FAMILTON

LIVE REVIEW: Built To Spill @ Manning Bar, Sydney (10/03/16)

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Built To Spill @ Manning Bar

This was a night for the guitars. Loud, textural and visceral six-string magic. Opener Ben Salter had a keyboardist in his live band who added some fine organ and synth sounds but the Gin Club head honcho showed that his solo material leans more towards rhythm-heavy, guitar-led rock songs. Not in a primitive sense though, Salter’s fine way with words and his voice, which only occasionally gets ragged and unhinged, ensure that the songs were the focus of an impressive set.

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Ben Salter

Built To Spill flew under the 90s alt-rock radar. They were never part of the A-league of grunge but they were highly respected and gathered devoted fans around them, much like Modest Mouse. Doug Martsch, the band’s mastermind and sole consistent member, was held up as a guitar hero and creative lyricist with his distinctive high-register vocals. Now, with a new rhythm section in tow they finally returned to Australia and delivered a workmanlike but thoroughly on-point trip through their back catalogue with a particular spotlight on their recent album Untethered Moon. That record provided some of the set highlights with the songs Never be The Same and On The Way.

Martsch was completely unassuming as a frontman, with little interaction with the crowd, gazing out across them like he was still processing where he was. That is no criticism of the man for he delivered in spades with his slashing chords and quirky riffs and that thin, wavering and soaring voice (think J Mascis and Neil Young) that defines his sound. With three guitarists, the effect was a widescreen montage of spiralling classic rock solos, contrasting psych textures and melodies that made for a wonderfully warm and captivating sound. The real (and unexpected) treat in the encore was a cover of The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now that was surprisingly faithful to the original and showed that in a strange way there was a similar seam of off-kilter guitar creativity going on in both 80s Manchester and 90s Boise, Idaho.

Chris Familton